Stop bad-mouthing baseball

Sentimental sports columnists moan about its demise, even though the facts don't support their arguments.

Published August 22, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

A couple of weeks ago I took off on the Wall Street Journal for too easily buying into the "baseball is down" syndrome. In the interests of equal time, I'm now going to flog the New York Times, specifically a piece by David Leonhardt in the Money and Business section titled "The National Pastime Falls Behind in the Count -- How to Re-energize Big-League Baseball and Win New Fans."

If this piece seems familiar to you, it's because you've read it before -- it's a "trend" piece. You start with a thesis, look for some popular gripes to support it, find a couple of experts (preferably celebrities) who agree and you've got -- a trend! The popular trend right now in sports is the prevailing economic woes of Major League Baseball and what to do about them. Leonhardt's evidence for this dire economic trend is the fact that "average attendance for the league" -- I assume he means for the leagues -- "has not recovered to the levels it reached before the 1994 labor dispute (which eliminated the World Series) ... Meanwhile, the fall of television ratings for games makes the National Football League look good, and the number of children playing organized baseball is plummeting."

Let's take the last item first. I tried the same source for this as the other reporters, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, and got precisely different answers. Yes, I was told, the number of boys playing Little League ball has declined sharply in recent years, but I was cautioned that the figures may not accurately reflect the participation of the growing Latin community where baseball is huge, that it doesn't reflect the rapidly increasing number of girls participating in some form of organized ball and that it doesn't begin to consider the rapid increase in kids who are learning to play T-ball -- in other words, young kids who come in under the radar scope of Little League. Taken together, this does not constitute a "plummeting" number of children playing organized ball, or reflect the views of the SGMA, a spokesman for whom says "the future of the game looks bright."

But that's a minor point; Leonhardt bases his major argument concerning the health of Major League Baseball on attendance and ratings. When he says average attendance has still not reached the levels of 1994, he is right: Attendance for 1994 was 30,900 per game; this year, it's 30,700. But is this really worth making a case over?

Before we do, let's check some facts. First, what now seems to have been forgotten about the '94 season is that for some reason, or combination of reasons, attendance took a huge and unanticipated jump. For the previous five seasons, attendance had hovered between 25,000 and 27,000, so 1994 was, for whatever reason, something of an aberration. Second, since 1996, attendance has climbed steadily from 26,000-plus to 27,000-plus in 1997; 28,000-plus in 1998 and 1999; and to a fraction under 30,000 last season. Third, has anyone noticed that without the obvious failure of expansion to Florida, attendance would have surpassed the level of '94?

Has anyone ever really looked at attendance figures for MLB? You can get them in Total Baseball, you know. I find that the actual numbers are usually a cure for an amazing number of erroneous arguments made about the modern game. For instance, this idea that there was some kind of "golden age" prior to this one. In 1986, the year the Mets won the World Series, average attendance was a mere 22,000 and change. In 1976, when Sports Illustrated was proclaiming a "Baseball Boom" on its covers, average attendance was 16,185. In 1961 when "Rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel," attendance was 13,323. In 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series and when baseball pretty much had the sports pages all to itself, average attendance was 13,446. In 1941, the year DiMaggio had his streak and Ted Williams hit .400, average attendance was 7,852. Now, when exactly was this golden age supposed to have been, and exactly what standards of popularity is baseball supposed to be living up to today?

And what exactly does "The fall of the television ratings makes the NFL look good" mean? The NFL, which makes most of its revenue from national TV, has watched "Monday Night Football" ratings free-fall, and has seen declining ratings in championship games and even last season's Super Bowl. Are baseball's national ratings being compared to that? But who watches baseball on national TV? Baseball fans watch their own home teams on local channels, not on ESPN. Have World Series ratings dropped from 10 years ago? Yes, but not nearly so much as have those of the NBA finals. Is it so hard to understand that what we're seeing here is part of a bigger trend, one that affects all sports on TV?

I have less and less patience with these "What can we do to restore the game?" kinds of stories, particularly when it is increasingly obvious that it is only a handful of people in the media, not the fans, who are screaming for change. The New York Times piece was another setup for the glories and pleasures of -- you guessed it -- minor league baseball, which (talk about a trend) sportswriters increasingly see as a relief from all that's wrong with Major League ball. Yeah, right; ask any one of those minor leaguers if he wouldn't instantly drop everything for a taste of that Major League vice tomorrow. And why, I wonder, does a boom in minor league ball signal some sort of drop in the interest of Major League ball, rather than an increase in the overall interest in professional baseball everywhere? Which, by the way, is the way I see it.

Trend stories about "What's wrong with baseball?" all have to have quotes from Doris Kearns Goodwin; it's some kind of rule, I think. One of the things that is definitely wrong with baseball is that it's burdened with the lead weight of Doris Kearns Goodwin's nostalgia. Does any other sport have her equivalent? Do basketball and hockey fans have to listen to the same depressing litany of what it was like to go to games with her dad, and how the game was so much better then because all the players always stayed on the same teams? Will someone please, please shut Doris Kearns Goodwin up about the subject of the Brooklyn Dodgers and tell her that ballplayers don't change teams now any more than they used to? Will someone tell her that the concept of loyalty didn't enter into baseball until the players had a choice about where they could play?

Would someone remind her that the Brooklyn Dodgers of her youth were highly unusual in that they stayed together as a unit -- that other teams, the teams that envied the Dodgers because they won almost every year, weren't so lucky?

And then will someone explain to me why it was good that the Brooklyn Dodgers of the late '40s and early '50s stayed together so long but bad for baseball that the Yankees of the last six years have done the same?

"There are places," writes Leonhardt, "where the fans of every team legitimately dream of a championship ... and then there is Major League Baseball." I'm sorry to say it, but, no, there aren't. The minor leagues everyone gets weepy about are filled with players who change teams and leagues so quickly they would make Doris Kearns Goodwin's head spin. The minor leagues are filled with teams and owners who don't give a damn about winning pennants and would sell their fans' hopes downstream in a heartbeat if it meant dealing a key player to the Major Leagues.

There is no such place as baseball in the Elysian fields. There is only nostalgia for it, which leads in turn to contempt for the game that is, which is the real tragedy, because the one out there right now has never been better.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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